Part of being in prison is that your rights and freedom are restricted. But prisoners do retain some rights – this was re-confirmed by the highest UK court 15 years ago today.
Judges in the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) said that any prison sentence “inevitably curtails the enjoyment… of rights enjoyed by other citizens… But [it] does not wholly deprive the person confined of all rights enjoyed by other citizens.” In other words, prisoners don’t forfeit all of their human rights, just because they are in prison.
The right to access a court is particularly important for prisoners. In order to do that, you also need the related right to communicate with a lawyer, who can advise you of your legal rights in complete confidence.
The court was asked to decide whether a policy allowing prison officers to open prisoners’ letters to and from their lawyers was a breach of human rights. The policy in question said:
During a cell search staff must examine legal correspondence thoroughly in the absence of the prisoner.
Communications with lawyers attract a special protection in English law, known as ‘privilege’. Legal privilege is like a heightened form of confidentiality protection, reflecting the importance of unrestrained discussions with legal advisors. The policy ignored this protection.
A prisoner, Mr Daly, challenged the policy. He wanted inmates to be able to be present when their letters were being read.
The court decided that the policy did breach human rights. Allowing prison officers to examine confidential letters from prisoners’ legal advisors, even before the prisoners could see the letters and in the prisoners’ absence, went too far.
The court also said that, in deciding human rights cases, you have to ask whether the interference with people’s rights is for a legitimate purpose and whether the interference is ‘proportionate’. It must be no more than is necessary to achieve the legitimate purpose. The ‘blanket’ nature of the policy in this case went further than was necessary.
The right of prisoners – of all of us – to communicate with our lawyers confidentially is fundamental to a democracy society. If this confidentiality is undermined, the wheels fall off the justice system as a whole. Fifteen years later, this principle is just as important as it ever was.
This case was #11 in our 50 Human Rights Cases Which Transformed Britain. You can read our story of this case here. Learn about the importance of the right to privacy with our infographic poster and other privacy resources. Read how human rights protect justice here.